In the last 30 years, some of the biggest names to have passed through FF1600 have done so through the Team USA Scholarship, founded by the American-based British broadcaster and journalist Jeremy Shaw.
The Scholarship is a programme that annually brings two or more young Americans to Britain to get a taste of its motorsport culture on and off-track through the Formula Ford Festival, Walter Hayes Trophy and tours of ‘Motorsport Valley’.
FF1600website caught up with Shaw at the recent Festival, where his latest scholars Jake Craig and Colin Mullan were competing, to find out why the Scholarship exists.
“Basically to give back to the sport,” Shaw explains. “I’ve always liked helping young drivers, and in 1990 when we started the programme, FFord over in the UK was suffering. There was Formula Renault, Formula Vauxhall, all sorts of categories, and they were cancelling British FFord races through lack of entries.
“All the indications seemed to suggest that would be the last ever FFord Festival. So I thought if it’s the last Festival, I’ve got to go. I hadn’t been since I’d left the country in ’85 [to work in America]. If there’s not many entries, maybe I can bring over a young American driver and do quite well, because there’s not going to be many cars.
“I had a talk around some of the IndyCar teams, and they all said ‘great idea, let’s do it’. So I put together a team, came over here, and I think 208 cars turned up that year. It was one of the biggest entries they’d ever had!”
The first scholar was Jimmy Vasser, who six years later would be CART champion. His FF1600 experience wasn’t a success though.
“Jimmy got taken out before Druids on the first lap of his heat race and that was the end of that,” Shaw recalls. “But it was a great experience, and it carried on from there.”
From idea to lining up on the Festival grid took less than two months for Shaw and his small team, and one hurdle they encountered was when their initial scholar pick proved unavailable.
“We talked to [four-time NASCAR Cup champion] Jeff Gordon about doing it, because he was driving Midgets at the time. He’d mightily impressed us, and said yes he’d love to it, but then a Midget commitment came up meaning he couldn’t do it.”
After five years of Festival entries, the Scholarship moved on from FFord.
“The main reason for that was FFord got diversified. They brought in the Zetec engine, and costs went up. We ran Formula 3 cars for one year with Dick Bennett, with Memo Gidley we ran FVauxhalls in the EFDA Nations cup that Dan Partel put together. That was good value for money.
“Then we did Formula Palmer Audi, but finally FFord kind of settled back again over here, so we came back in 2008. It’s great value for money, and the competition’s fantastic.”
TOP 10 TEAM USA SCHOLARs
Jimmy Vasser 1990 – ’96 CART champion, ’98 CART runner-up – ’86 SCCA National Runoffs FF1600 winner
Bryan Herta 1991 – 8th in ’96 & ’98 CART, ’93 Indy Lights champion – 11th in ’91 FFord Festival
Buddy Rice 1997 – ’04 Indy 500 winner, 3rd in ’04 IndyCar, ’00 Atlantics champion
Joey Hand 2000 – ’16 Le Mans 24H GTEPro winner, ’11 ALMS GT champion, 3rd in ’01 Atlantics
A. J. Allmendinger 2001 – ’12 Daytona 24H winner, 3rd in ’06 Champ Car, ’03 Atlantics champion – 3rd in ’02 NZ GP, 11th in ’01-’02 NZ FFord
J. R. Hildebrand 2005 – ’11 Indy 500 runner-up, ’09 Indy Lights champion, ’06 USF2000 champion
Josef Newgarden 2008 – ’17 IndyCar champion, ’11 Indy Lights champion, ’09 British FFord runner-up – ’08 FFord Festival winner, 6th in ’09 WHT
Conor Daly 2008 – 3rd in ’13 GP3, ’12-’13 MRF Challenge champion, ’10 IP2000 champion – ’08 WHT winner, 6th in ’08 FFord Festival
Connor De Phillippi 2009 – ’17 Nurburgring 24H winner, ’17 ADAC GT Masters champion, ’11 IP2000 runner-up – ’09 WHT winner, 9th in ’09 FFord Festival
Oliver Askew 2016 – 3rd in ’18 IP2000, ’17 USF2000 champion, ’16 RTI Shootout winner – ’16 WHT runner-up
Prior to recent calendar expansions, the end-of-season FF1600 events also got considerable coverage in the wider motorsport world, meaning more exposure for Shaw’s scholars.
The Scholarship’s most famous recipient is probably 2017 IndyCar champion and ’08 Festival winner in the Kent class Josef Newgarden.
“You could see right from the start he was a potential star,” says Shaw.
“He had the right sort of demeanour, the right attitude and approach to everything. There’s no doubt we opened some doors for him, and he fully acknowledges that. But the thing about him was he was able to knock those doors down and make opportunities for himself. The Scholarship is an opportunity to meet people, make some connections that are going to be good for you in the future.
“Vasser was a bit of a disaster as he didn’t even do a racing lap, but when he was over here he went to Reynard and Lola, who were making Indycars at the time, and made some connections there that were useful for him down the road.
“I try to pick people that have got a chance to make a career out of it. If they haven’t got the money, and a lot of them don’t, then at least they’ve got the right sort of personality. So if they meet the right people, make the right connections, somebody will say: ‘yeah, I like this kid. I’ll get behind him, I’ll help him on his way.'”
Newgarden stayed in Europe up to GP3 before returning home. Last year, Haas F1 team principal Gunther Steiner said there was “nobody ready for F1 in the US”.
“He’s right,” agrees Shaw.
“Alexander Rossi was ready to get into a F1 car, he wasn’t able to make those opportunities really bring to fruition. But there aren’t any other Americans who are poised to go into F1, as you’ve got to be racing in Europe. That’s what Josef tried to do. But most of the [Scholarship] drivers, their careers are focused more on the Indy 500.”
European budgets are higher than America’s, and Shaw’s programme has been just as successful as F1 junior teams in producing future stars.
“Nobody puts in a lot of money [to the Scholarship], it’s a whole bunch of people putting in a little bit to make it happen. I’d love to find a Red Bull or somebody who wants to put in the money to take kids all the way up the ladder. Haven’t been able to do that, but at least we’ve kept the programme going.”
The search for scholars starts around the middle of each season, with a shortlist, interviews and then a September shootout. The winners drive for Cliff Dempsey, who with his wife Michelle have formed “a great partnership and look after the kids fantastically well”.
And even if their time in Britain lacks results, scholars now get a Road to Indy Shootout ticket, putting them one step closer to their career dreams.
Additional reporting by Craig Woollard.